In times of crisis, leaders must communicate honestly, prepare aggressively, act decisively and ensure results.
Leaders who do this will dispel uncertainty and fear. They will inspire trust and confidence.
This is what our federal government should be saying and doing in the face of COVID-19.
The U.S. has one of the best health care systems in the world, but we’re not well prepared for a global pandemic, so this will get a lot worse before it gets better.
In the first days of this outbreak, researchers on the ground in Washington state had the ability to test independently for the virus. Several other state and private labs did too. But for two weeks the CDC required everyone to use its test kit that was in short supply and ultimately did not work.
It has since reversed course, albeit too late. But that indecision allowed the virus to spread in communities and across states undetected. We still do not have an accurate account of the number of cases across the country.
Epidemiology suggests there are already tens of thousands of cases in America we don’t know about, because we don’t have enough tests. The CDC’s own scenario planning says we could see as many as 214 million Americans could eventually become infected and up to 1.7 million could die.
We must act aggressively, now, to make sure that our hospital system — which must still handle the emergencies of everyday life — is not overwhelmed by treating people who have COVID-19.
There’s already a long list of preparations the Trump administration has failed to take, but let’s look forward. Here’s what we should do right now:
- Start converting factories to produce critical drugs, medical supplies and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This crisis could last for months or longer, and we can’t rely on international suppliers. In the meantime, we need to ration the supplies we have, so the sickest people with the best chance of recovering get what they need.
- The secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct VA hospitals to provide a backstop to the rest of the health care system. Nobody knows this, but it’s part of their mission.
- Families should stock up on canned and frozen food and order extra prescription refills now. They should plan now for school to be out for as little as two weeks and a long as three months.
Rather than allow chaos to reign as individuals and organizations all independently decide how to handle this, the federal government should provide explicit guidance going forward. Here is a start:
- This is a free country, but the government should share clear, nationwide guidance for which businesses should stay open. In our offices, we have a clear protocol that colleagues are already emulating.
- Immediately declare that testing and treatment for COVID-19 will be funded for all. We can’t have millions of Americans walking around sick (and afraid to admit it) because they can’t afford care. Medicaid must be expanded for the crisis.
- Each city should designate a separate hospital — or isolate a section of the hospital in communities where there’s only one facility — to exclusively handle COVID-19 cases. That way, people who are receiving treatment for a broken arm or delivering a baby are at less risk of contracting the virus.
- First responders should form designated COVID-19 response teams so that they do not become victims themselves or play a role in its spread. We can’t have entire police and fire departments going into isolation after a few house calls for infected residents.
- Public schools should be shut down and food programs like SNAP should be immediately expanded to support kids who lose school lunch. Remote education should be used wherever possible. All senior centers should suspend visitors and implement family video chats instead.
- For workers, paid sick leave is essential so that infected citizens can be isolated, get treated and have the necessary time to recover without fear of losing their jobs.
- At home, sleep more, eat well, stay in touch virtually with family and friends and stay in shape (but avoid the gym) to reduce stress, which boosts your immune system. And of course, keep washing your hands.
The best plans mean nothing if they are not successfully implemented: this is most often where leaders ultimately succeed or fail. Plenty of people have great business ideas, but few actually turn them into successful companies.
Everybody, from the president to the average mom and dad at home with their kids: All of us need to be vigilant to ensure we’re all doing what we’re supposed to do. Is the VA actually prepared? Are your kids actually washing their hands? Ensuring these things happen will literally make the difference between life or death for many Americans.
If our leaders can not only demonstrate clear plans and decisive action, but also point to measurable results, public confidence will increase. That’s what real leadership in times of crisis is all about.